Peter Townshend John Swenson - Essay

John Swenson

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Over the last ten years, the Who's greatest triumphs have followed their most bitter disappointments. After the highly successful Tommy in 1969, Pete Townshend's immediate attempts to come up with another large-scale project ended in failure: Lifehouse, an intriguing and futuristic rock & roll scenario, was never filmed. Parts of it, however, soon become the epic album, Who's Next (1971), Now Quadrophenia, Townsend's 1973 vinyl opus on Mods and Rockers, has been made into a brilliant movie after years of frustrating the Who's efforts to incorporate it into their concerts….

Townshend's writing for the Who has always been impressionistic. Images take precedence over linear exposition, and there's a lot of room for interpretation. When the band plays, the listener's imagination fills in whatever dramatic details are necessary. Filming Townshend's ideas forces the director to make the audience's decisions for them, which is why the purposely vague, mystical Tommy became more the product of Ken Russell's imagination than Pete Townshend's by the time it reached the screen.

But Quadrophenia is the Who myth itself, rooted in specific historic details that can be woven around Townshend's images without cheapening their implications. Jimmy, the crisis-ridden Mod, can be placed in a number of additional settings and given more depth as a character without significantly damaging the author's original intention. As a result, the music fits the movie perfectly—and vice versa.

John Swenson, "Mod 'Quad'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1979; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 304, November 15, 1979, p. 70.